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If You Can’t Smell It or Touch It, Can It Still Be Infrastructure?

President Biden seeks to broaden the definition of a crucial piece of government. It’s part of a debate that's been going on more than two centuries.

"Child care is infrastructure," says New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. So does the Biden administration, which seeks to expand the term to include paid leave and key social services as part of its trillion-dollar proposal to expand what government funds. This child-care facility for working parents is located in Los Angeles.
(Al Seib/TNS)
Shakespeare said that a rose smells just as sweet whatever you call it. Maybe, but it’s also true that names affect our perceptions. So, is publicly funded child care more appealing if you call it infrastructure?

President Biden has already been at the podium repeatedly to announce trillions of dollars of proposed new spending under his American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan. Both are being called infrastructure, even though many of the elements don’t qualify by traditional definitions.

Republicans, who generally oppose expanding government-funded services, say the term should be limited to physical projects like roads, bridges and power lines. Many Democrats want to expand the term to encompass all sorts of less tangible services aimed at making life more comfortable. “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure," says New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Wherever you stand in the current terminology debate, generally speaking we have progressed as a society, both economically and in other ways, by “defining infrastructure upward,” as I said in my last book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies (Texas 2012). In 1850, getting a drink of water and learning to read and write were mostly private responsibilities. We were into the 20th century before every state both funded public schools and required children to attend them.

It’s easy to see in the rearview mirror that increased government services – whether they be roads or public schooling – have made greater prosperity possible. It’s easier to run a business if you can drive to work and once there don’t have to teach your employees to read. It’s not unreasonable to label that whole complex of improvements as infrastructure.

But the answers to what government should do in the name of infrastructure aren't automatic. Nations in Western Europe and Asia have for decades considered health care, child care, and to some extent, housing, to be "infrastructure." The United States has yet to fully make that leap and may never do so. Some states and localities may make the leap, and others may not. It depends not only on what people want, but on the ability of government to do the job well.

What is certain is that the debate as to what our government should do with its physical resources is an old one, and crucial, going back to the country’s founding. It’s revealing that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 grew out of difficulties involving a cross-state canal project that George Washington was pushing. To some extent, the entire history of this country can be told through the debates about infrastructure, although the term itself is a recent one.
Potomack Canal_01.jpg
Debates about what constitutes infrastructure go back more than 200 years. Roads and canals, such as the original Potomac Canal seen here near Great Falls, Va., were once considered needed "internal improvements" by some lawmakers and were eventually funded by government. (Photo: A. Toure, National Park Service)
In the 1800s, the powerful and wise statesman Albert Gallatin, who served as treasury secretary under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, put together a package of funding roads and canals that came to be called “internal improvements” for the new nation. Although Madison vetoed much of it as unconstitutional, a good deal of it was eventually funded. Later, Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had his “American plan,” which proposed a three-legged stool of tariffs, a national bank and publicly funded roads and canals. They were the basis of Clay’s three presidential campaigns, and while he didn’t win any of them, the tariffs and roads became part of the American governmental project.

In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the railroad acts of 1862 and 1864, which gave away enormous amounts of land to private railroad companies. They had their critics, but they indisputably led to an explosion of rail building and the creation of new cities.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt led the debate over who would be in charge of the then new and life-changing technology, electricity. Roosevelt pushed for direct public ownership, and in part because of his efforts, there are still many towns and cities, large and small, where that exists. It’s not often reported that these quasi-socialistic enterprises generally work very well, delivering reliable power at reasonable prices. In recent decades many of these localities, as well as the similar electric co-ops, have started providing broadband Internet service, which has also gone well.

It was only in the 1980s that the term “infrastructure” came into vogue. It’s a word no fan of the English language could love. Nevertheless, it does the job in conveying that there are some services, whether they be physical or of a softer variety, that can be created at a structural level, and that in turn make other activities possible.

Water systems are a good example of this. Before 1850, they were rare – and diseases and poor health brought on by the absence of plentiful and clean water were common. Cities learned that creating a water system, rather than leaving it to the market, was among other things good for business. The same goes for public schools. General literacy, as well as knowledge of civics, was not only good for business, but good for democracy.

To me, it makes sense to define infrastructure broadly, but only if government can do the job well, and at a reasonable price. Western Europe, Japan and China build train lines and highways faster, cheaper and better than we do, even while paying their workers more. This is not an advertisement for copying foreign systems. But we need to focus on the infrastructure of government itself, the bureaucracy and the legal system as well as the roads, bridges and public services. If we want government to do more, we need to make it possible for the governmental process to do it. We should be able to build a road or dig a tunnel as fast and as well and as cheaply as France or Spain.

Biden is talking about funding broadband, child care, elderly assistance, housing, ports and manufacturing. The big question is whether he is talking about having government provide these services directly, or subsidizing private companies to do the job. If the latter, we need to ask whether government can make sure that the public gets fair value for the investment of its tax dollars.

To some extent, it is a silly debate to argue about terminology. A rose is as sweet by any other name. But in a deeper sense, it’s appropriate and necessary that we debate what government should and can do – and what level of government should do it, local, state or federal. We have made mixed choices over our country’s history, with mixed results. We move forward as a society if we support more vital functions publicly, but only if we are up to the task.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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